Sunday, June 17, 2007

Fathers' Day 2007

[Today is both Fathers' Day and my own father's birthday, his 101st. He's been dead for almost 45 years, so I have not celebrated either day with him for a long, long time. I make do with the memories he left me. The following is from my Appalachian Trail memoir.]

I thought of my father often during my 2002 AT thru-hike. He died in November 1962, so the 40th anniversary of his death was prominent in my mind. As I walked, I frequently recalled memories of him and wondered about his thoughts and feelings in his final months of life. I don’t have a lot to go on. I did not know my father well. He died just before my 15th birthday. What memories I have are those of a pre-adolescent and teenager, so I know nothing from him of his thoughts, feelings, hopes and dreams. Much of what I know (or think I know) of him I learned after the fact.

As a 54 year old thru-hiker I compared myself to my father at that same age. He turned 54 in 1960, a middle class businessman in a small town. He was a third generation pharmacist, working first in the family drug store and, after World War II, for a drug store chain. He was a pharmacist at the Peoples Drug Store in Danville, Virginia from 1949 to 1962 and store manager after 1951. He was married with sons aged 12 (me) and 14 (my brother, Neil). He was somewhat physically active, walking to and from the bus stop daily and swimming at the YWCA on a regular basis. At my age, my father had less than two years to live.

My father and I never hiked or camped together. He seemed to enjoy my enthusiasm for outdoor activities when I was a Boy Scout and told me about his own experiences as a scout. But that interest never translated into active participation. I cannot imagine him doing anything like a long distance hike. Work and family would have precluded that kind of endeavor, had it ever occurred to him. Looking back, I wondered if he would have been proud, appalled or amused at my decision to give up home and career to spend six months walking in the woods. I like to think that my father had sufficient sense of adventure to share my excitement but I really don’t know.

As I walked the trail from April to September, I tried to remember the months prior to his death. I don’t have much real information to go on–he and my mother did not let on that he was dying until the very end. Besides, I was a teenager, fully absorbed in my own world. Absent a clear warning, I was largely oblivious to my father’s condition. I knew he was ill, maybe even that he had lung cancer. He’d smoked Camels until 1961 and had a noticeable cough. But as far as I knew, he was responding to treatment–he went to work until maybe a week before his death. His death was a real surprise to me. To everyone else, too, according to my Aunt Peg.

Most days on the trail I would think and wonder what he and my mother thought and felt on that same day in 1962. Maybe they did not believe that he was going to die. They kept things pretty normal. I try to remember that time but cannot recall anything that would have warned me of his death. What I remember are the things that directly affected me: escaping Catholic school, starting public high school, making new friends and conflict with my father.

Perhaps the conflict with my father keeps bringing me back to his death. As a teenager, I behaved in ways that he did not approve: smoking, shooting pool, making the wrong friends. I feared his disapproval and at times wished he were dead–life would be so much simpler then. And then he died. And life was anything but simple. I know that my wishes did not kill him but I have always regretted them. I wish they were not my last memories of him. Even more, I regret that I never had the opportunity to know my father as an adult and vice-versa. Whatever his concerns in 1962, I think he would be proud of what I have done with the life he gave me. But his death closed the door on any chance for us to resolve the our conflicts. Lingering doubts from that time have been part of my life ever since.

Thinking about my father made him an important part of my thru-hike. Despite my sadness about his death and my feelings toward him at the time, I do have fond memories of him. I swam often with him at the YMCA and summer days at a public pool. He tolerated and, I think even supported, my rebellious attitude toward the Catholic education that he agreed to when he married my mother. I inherited his love of books, the one passion that I know he shared with my mother. That gift that has rewarded me immensely over the years. He encouraged my curiosity and independence which, ultimately, led me to the Appalachian Trail in April 2002. In that respect, this thru-hike is a gift from him.

This time on the Appalachian Trail, 40 years after my father’s death, has helped me to understand my relationship with him better. The events of his death or my feelings at the time have not changed but I understand them better now and am grateful for all that my father gave me.

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